CLEAN FINGERS

In authoritarian Cambodia, voter turnout is key, but not for the reason you think

Will she vote in July?
Will she vote in July?
Image: AP Photo/Heng Sinith
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In many countries, political incumbents feel threatened by get-out-the-vote efforts. Not so in Cambodia, where the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) faces no credible threat in national elections a month from now, and prime minister Hun Sen looks set to extend his rule of over three decades. Last year authorities dissolved the only viable opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and charged its president Kem Sokha with treason.

But voters could still hurt the ruling party in one key way: by boycotting the July 29 election. A drastic drop in turnout—like the record low Venezuela saw in its recent polls—would be a serious blow to the ruling party. With that in mind, opposition groups have been encouraging people to stay home come election day.

In response, authorities have been trying to ensure that voters go to the polls. The prime minister, generals, and others have been stumping throughout the country, urging everyone from teachers to garment workers to come out and vote for “peace and security.” Their efforts have ranged from patriotic appeals to thinly veiled threats.

“Voter turnout is one of the key proofs of legitimacy, so the ruling party must do everything it can to push for a high turnout,” said Kol Preap, executive director of corruption watchdog Transparency International Cambodia.

That’s the spirit

A government-linked Facebook campaign gained traction last month, with hundreds of people changing their profile pictures to reflect pro-government messages to vote. Their new photos showed ordinary Cambodians—students, couples, fathers holding babies—against backgrounds as varied as rice fields, Angkor Wat, and even a New York City subway station. The messages emblazoned across them included:

“I go to vote because I am a Khmer nationalist.”

“We go to vote to keep peace and security of our nation.”

The official who started the Facebook campaign, Huy Vannak, recently estimated that at the height of the campaign another 100 people popped up on his Facebook feed every minute with photos bearing the slogans. ”They hear the voice of the opposition… but want to show their commitment and their willingness and their right to vote,” said Vannak, who works in the interior ministry, and heads a government-aligned journalists federation.

The government’s use of Facebook changed dramatically in the wake of the previous elections in 2013—which saw the opposition make massive use of social media, leading to a close race. Officials were ordered to engage with the public on Facebook and prime minister Hun Sen’s own page acquired millions of likes and followers.  Meanwhile, ordinary Cambodians are routinely targeted and arrested for social media posts critical of the ruling party, leading to pressure to publicly signal support for the government.

Vote or else

Technically, there are multiple parties to vote for, despite the dissolution of the CNRP. According to the National Election Committee, some 20 small parties have registered, which it has pointed to as proof of an open playing field and “multi-party democracy.” None of those parties, however, poses a credible threat to the ruling party.

“The government wants a high voter turnout to fight the perception of illegitimacy which permeates the upcoming election. They really need this to ‘look the part,'” said Sophal Ear, who teaches diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in California.

The CNRP, in a statement issued last month, equated abstaining from the vote—also known as the “clean fingers” campaign—with “supporting the CNRP in your heart and a desire to lead the country toward positive change.”

On his Facebook page, the prime minister shot back that “only bad people who wish to destroy democracy” would advise citizens not to vote.

In some cases, the CPP’s encouragement to vote has grown threatening. In May, senior party official Ieng Mouly said anyone abstaining from voting would be a “traitor.” In another instance, he told voters they would “make people suspicious that you believe and support the rebel group’s campaign” if they didn’t have the black ink on their fingers showing they voted, according to Fresh News (link in Khmer), a pro-government media outlet.

While the government is using social media for its own pro-voting campaign, it’s also using it to keeping tabs on dissenters. After a Facebook user anonymously posted a photo of a sign saying “It is my right not to vote,” officials told VOA last week they were seeking legal action against the account owner. Police also said they would find and “educate” members of a Facebook group promoting the boycott.

Just stay home

Such threats have come amid an atmosphere of heightened repression in the country of 16 million. In the months since the CNRP’s dissolution, much of the party’s leadership has fled the country, journalists have been arrested, independent media outlets have been forced into closing, and citizens have been charged for the most innocuous of criticism. One woman was sentenced to two years in prison for throwing a shoe at a CPP billboard.

The CPP has reason to be paranoid. In 2013, with around 70% voter turnout, the ruling party suffered its worst setback ever—winning the popular vote by just a hair in an election many believed to be marred with irregularities. Commune elections held last June—typically viewed as a harbinger of the national elections—saw the CPP win 70% of seats, a significant dip from the 97% it previously held. After dissolving the opposition last year, the ruling party swept up their seats at both the commune and parliamentary level.

The opposition is ramping up its calls for voters to stay home. On Twitter and Facebook, former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy pointed to Venezuela, where president Nicolás Maduro won reelection last month, but with a historically low turnout in an election widely denounced as a sham. The Venezuelan election, Rainsy explained in an email, was “delegitimized because of an embarrassingly low voter turnout.”

He and others will be hoping something similar happens in Cambodia come July 29.